Buster Posey’s grand slam, Barry Zito’s bunt, Pablo Sandoval’s three homer game, Sergio Romo’s knee-buckling cutter, Brandon Crawford’s shot towards the Allegheny, Brandon Belt’s 18th inning homer, Travish Ishikawa barrelling through Jake Peavy after his pennant winning smash, Joe Panik’s glove flip, Madison Bumgarner’s 0.25 World Series ERA—San Francisco fans and the entire Giants organization owe their entire dynastic success to Scott Rolen.
That might be an overstatement, but dammit, I’m with Ashton Kutcher. I believe in the awesome power of the butterfly effect—pull one stitch and the whole universe unravels.
Hold this thread as I walk away...
Rewind to the 10th of Game 3 of the NLDS against the Cincinnati Reds.
Rolen plays a half-step in, a half-step further off the line and he makes a routine play at third base to throw Joaquín Arias out at first. Inning over. Game still tied going into the bottom of the 10th. Reds win on a Jay Bruce walk-off home run in the 12th off Tim Lincecum and the Giants’ Even Year Dynasty turns into a one-off championship team relegated to pub trivia obscurity.
One could argue that 2012 was the most improbable of the San Francisco Giants World Series wins—not because they weren’t talented, but because the holes they had dug themselves into were so magnificent—and their division series win over the Reds was definitely the diciest. They had to win 3 games in a row on the road to a team that hadn’t lost at home three times in a row all season; win in extra innings in Game 3; starter in the 3rd inning in Game 4 skirt danger by allowing the winning run to bat twice in the bottom of the 9th in Game 5 (guess who Romo struck out to clinch the series?)—the Giants were aided by events that certainly had nothing to do with the quality of their play.
Cincinnati ace Johnny Cueto strained his oblique after facing one batter in Game 1, forcing him off the mound for the entire series, tasking Dusty Baker to manage a depleted rotation. Even with the all-hands-on-deck start, Mat Latos, on short notice, pitched 4 innings of 1 run ball and the Reds took game 1.
The following night, Bronson Arroyo (sans cornrows) muted a bundled crowd at AT&T Park with 7 shutout innings in game 2. Two days later, on the banks of the Ohio River, Homer Bailey went 5 ⅔ innings before allowing a hit. He struck out 10 over 7 innings. The Giants offensive onslaught in that elimination game reduced to one run in the 3rd cobbled together with a HBP, walk, sacrifice bunt, and sacrifice fly.
As far as numbers go, the Giants were out-hit and out-pitched by the Reds. For 27 innings, San Francisco went to the plate swinging pool noodles, and too many of them had goatees, and all of it was all terrible.
San Francisco: .194/.266/.339
San Francisco: 4.11 ERA, 1.348 WHIP, 43 SO, 15 BB, 22 RA
Cincinnati: 3.13 ERA, 1.043 WHIP, 39 SO, 16 BB, 18 RA
San Francisco: 3
I don’t know how to make these numbers make sense with reality. Are numbers not reality? What are numbers but language, gestures towards meaning. My liberal-arts addled, soft-sculpted brain is tingling, tickled. Rejoice for there are gaps in numbers! Infinity exists between 1 and 2!
Enter Scott Rolen. Pardon me: Hall of Fame inductee, Scott Rolen.
It’s not really fair to call Game 3 “the Scott Rolen Game” because a baseball game is made of a million different energy synapses that branch off into a million-and-one different tributaries that flow in as many directions representing possibilities upon possibilities of what could happen. The Reds could’ve broke the game open in the 1st inning if not for a base running SNAFU by Brandon Phillips and a pretttttyyyy generous strike call for Ryan Vogelsong that rung-up our man Rolen to end the inning. Or if catcher Ryan Hanigan hadn’t biffed on a 95 MPH Jonathan Broxton fastball that directly preceded Rolen’s error, allowing Posey to advance to third and score on a bungled ball that never left the infield.
Put it another way: every game is an accumulation of failures on both sides, but its Rolen’s that sticks out as the direct link to the Giants’ victory. His misplay in the 10th allows the winning run to score. If he fields the Arias bounder cleanly the Reds take home field advantage into extra innings armed with an excellent bullpen against a depleted Giants bench with the light-hitting back-up catcher Héctor Sánchez as their only option to spark a rally in the 11th.
At the time, the situation didn’t feel as dire, but the Reds really needed to win Game 3. They did not want Mike Leake and his 4.58 regular season ERA to pitch Game 4, and they did not want to go to a winner-take-all Game 5 without their ace on the mound.
This, of course, is exactly what happened. Ángel Pagán homered off Leake in the first at-bat of the game; Gregor Blanco added 2 more runs with a long ball of his own in the 2nd; Lincecum struck out 6 over 4.1 innings; Buster Posey launched a grand slam against Latos the next day—a sequence of events that birthed one of the numerous fork-tongued postseason demons that marred Dusty Baker’s nights for so many years…
Insane defensive plays. Countless clutch hits. Scott Rolen’s Hall of Fame career had it all. pic.twitter.com/5VsKlDQn73— MLB (@MLB) January 24, 2023
Scott Rolen was 37. 2012 was his 17th and last season in the Majors—a career that earned a Rookie of the Year Award, 7 All-Star nods, 8 Gold Gloves, a World Series ring, and MVP votes in 4 different seasons across 3 different decades.
Careers are judged by averages but remembered in moments. No one thinks Aaron Boone should be in the Hall of Fame, but his ALCS homer will be remembered and talked about more than Ed Delahanty’s .346 career batting average or Harold Baines’s OPS.
Numbers and narrative, man.
Rolen had fielded a similar ground ball to the hopper that bounded off Arias’s bat thousands of times before, but in that moment when it absolutely mattered, he didn’t. The short hop ate him up. He kept it in front of him, corralled it, and still got off a throw, but it wasn’t enough.
Rolen deserves a Hall of Fame plaque. The Game 3 error is a small footnote to his career—even so, it will never be forgotten.